Can 'The City' Succeed Where Other Local News Outlets Have Failed?

April 11, 2019

By Carlo Versano

It was a classic example of local journalism in action. Cyrus Vance, Manhattan's high-profile district attorney, had spent a quarter of a million dollars on air travel and meals over the last five years ー all paid for by state-controlled forfeiture funds obtained by his office via legal settlements with banks.

The story came out of a Freedom of Information request, but it wasn't splashed across front page of the Big Apple's iconic tabloids, or published in the hallowed pages of the New York Times. It wasn't broken by the local news arms of the big networks, or in one of the free newspapers handed out in the subways.

It just appeared, without fanfare,on the brand-new website of a publication called The City.

That story heralded what may be a new day for the media capital of the world and its fraught relationship with the shrinking press corps that covers it. A new, non-profit news organization backed by wealthy donors, The City aims to fill the gap in New York's local media landscape that has been left decimated by layoffs and newsroom closures ー from the once-mighty Daily News to the now-shuttered DNAInfo.

"The opportunity is to return local news reporting to New York City," said Jere Hester, editor-in-chief of The City. The former Daily News editor told Cheddar in an interview Thursday that The City grew out of a realization that a metropolis with nearly nine million residents needed a devoted news organization that would hold leaders accountable and act as the voice of New Yorkers at a time when the city is trying to manage explosive population growth, an affordability crisis, and crumbling infrastructure.

The City's structure relies mainly on the largess of its benefactors ー both private citizens and foundations ー and allows the publisher to focus on the quality of its journalism rather than trying to compete in a digital ad market that is being swallowed up by Google, Facebook and, increasingly, Amazon. That business model, in which memberships and events also play a role, has become a new way for local and national newsrooms to survive. ProPublica, The Marshall Project, and the Texas Tribune are among other non-profit newsrooms that have been successful in breaking major stories and playing the role of the fourth estate without a traditional ad business.

The City also struck a partnership with New York Media to have its reporting woven into the New York print magazine, with its own vertical on the popular "They've been with us every step of the way," Hester said. He is open to other partnerships and deals with other media outlets. "We really want to get the work out there any which way we can."

"This is really part of the lifeblood of the city as much as Wall Street is," Hester said, speaking of the role of journalism. "We desperately need it."

Editor's note: Cheddar CEO Jon Steinberg is on the board of The City.